Anne Caroline Chausson Interview | Une Femme Formidable
Anne Caroline Chausson is the most successful downhill racer ever - twelve–time DH World Champion, four–time Dual Slalom World Champion, the list goes on...
Twelve–time DH World Champion (including a straight ten year run from 1993 to 2003), four–time Dual Slalom World Champion, three–time BMX World Champion, first ever Olympic BMX champion, a world record 55 World Cup DH victories… Anne Caroline Chausson is the most successful downhill racer ever. The unassuming Frenchwoman has an incredible victory roll that reads like a twelve–year calendar of UCI events, listing an era she dominated with a level of mental, physical and technical supremacy that’s unlikely to be matched...
From Dirt Issue 118 - December 2011
Words by Mick Kirkman. Photos by Mick Kirkman and Olivier Weidemann.
It’s now six years since Anne–Caro left the World Cup scene for new challenges, but performances at Enduro events like the Megavalanche, and that BMX Olympic gold medal at Beijing, prove her skill behind the bars is as potent as ever. She still wins every race she enters.
Chausson’s race career has always been low–key and shrouded in mystique to a degree, and the 33 year–old admits to a shyness and unwillingness for blatant self promotion, that’s conceivably garnered her less fame and respect than she deserves. With a perfectionist’s eye for the details needed to win so much, this is how she prefers things. It allows her the calmness and mental space to get on with the tough business of destroying the competition.
Starting out on 20" BMX wheels, Anne–Caro was introduced to mountain biking by Sunn Chipie team boss Max Commençal, earning her first Rainbow Stripes at Metabièf in 1993. This win (in her second ever race) paved the way for near total domination, and a devastating ten–year streak as World Champion, only halted by an injury blow at Les Gets in 2004.
Currently riding for US Company Ibis, Anne–Caro now enjoys the freedom of a career where she dictates the boundaries, and, as ever, is still light years ahead of the competition. We caught up with her this year at the World Championships in Champery…>>
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ACC: I was really young and wanted to do the same as my two big brothers and my dad, so from six years old I raced BMX. Sometimes we’d all get home with the full collection of four trophies, so that was cool – one for all the family! Ten years later, when I was on the French team, most of the men were Sunn Chipie riders like me, and they’d already tried mountain biking (which was new to France at the time). Those guys told me there was a World Championship that year (1993) at Metabief, and they were all pushing me to try to do it, to go to the Worlds and have a go. So I went, and that’s how it all started.
And what was your result?
I won the Junior category.
World Champion in your first ever DH race?
It was my second race actually. I had to race the French Cup before to qualify, but I only finished second in my first race. I didn’t know how to shift gears yet (laughs)…I raced on a Sunn Revolt hardtail, with flat pedals at that point. It had a small fork with very little suspension, I don’t remember how much. At this time most of the bikes were hardtails, even in DH.
When you did those first DH races how did you learn so quickly? Did you immediately feel you could be good at it and win races?
I didn’t really think about it. I was just having fun on my bike and doing what I liked the most. I loved jumping, so I wanted to do jumps all the time and get better at that. The racing was all so new, I was learning more and more after every run. I’d find something out, something new to try, and I knew I could go faster, so I went back up to the top and practiced what I learned in the last run and went faster. I never expected too much, because I came from BMX and I was against these girls like Kim Sonnier and Missy Giove I’d only seen in the mountain bike magazines, so when I won my first World Cup season overall I was really surprised, I couldn’t believe it. In my mind these other girls were the stars of the sport, not me. At the start of 1994, at Cap D’Ail, I won, and at this race I understood I was competitive. I knew I could do something in mountain biking, some wins, so I stopped racing BMX. Once you realise you can win you learn how to do it. You get to know how to control all the parameters that can happen in DH – mechanical issues, crashing in practice, injuries, and lots of things.
You didn’t seem to have too many problems…
Well I got good at controlling these parameters. Sure I won all the World Championships, but I didn’t win at every single round of the World Cup races.
And what were you doing in terms of training in the beginning?
Inside the Sunn team we used to say it was more like a ‘sect’. We were very professional and organised early on; close friends that rode together all the time, so I learned a lot from the guys. We always stayed independently of the French National team and none of us spoke English at that time, so we kept to ourselves and did our own thing. Francois Gachet (who was already a champion) was helping manage us, and I saw how to be serious, how to get fit, how to eat well.
I think a good thing about my career is I got a basis for my success back when DH tracks were a lot longer. Sometimes they were ten minutes long, so there was a lot of pedalling, a long time on the track, and you needed to be fit and strong. I did all this when I was young, and I still take the benefit of this base level today.
For sure, it is a lot to do with mental strength, but I work a lot everywhere. I work on the bike preparation, I trained a lot and I’m still training a lot. From my education, and my parents, when I was growing up, I could do what I wanted, but I was always taught that it was hard work to achieve your goals, so I worked hard. So if I want to do well at a World Championships I won’t take my bike out one month before the race and say, “OK I can ride, I can race", I will prepare a lot, and when you know that you’ve done all things at 100% you can feel a lot more confident about how it will finish.
So then you feel in control?
Well that’s the strange thing, I have always got super–nervous before races. Even the smallest little races. So nervous that it’s funny for me to think how I get. My trainer Stephane (Girard) knows how I am just before the start, but nobody from outside could ever see it. I often even puke before the race I am so nervous!
So you used to puke before the World Champs?
Yes sure (laughs) and the girls never knew. Ha, yes, I used to go off to the side to do it. I’m still very bad like this today, nerves still plague me.
That’s so weird, your image is not like that at all, you always seemed so in control…
Well I try and get it together just before the start, and then once the beeps go, it takes me a few seconds to get into the groove and I’m fine. You see some riders and it looks like they are already going 100% right off the line, but I needed a few seconds to compose, to steady myself. In the first turn or the first technical part I prefer sometimes to ride slower and be smooth, to increase my confidence for the rest of the track.
Of all the victories and the World Championships you’ve won are there any that really stand out for you?
Err…I can tell you the worst that’s for sure…Les Gets 2004. I had this stupid crash and broke my shoulder trying a new line like one hour before the race. I was feeling so good up to that point, so well prepared and it was in France, in front of my family. That was one mistake I shouldn’t have made, my worst souvenir of the Worlds…(laughs). The best moment is the Olympic BMX victory. It represents a lot for me, and for all the people that helped me. Even though I may be famous in the mountain biking world, I’m not in France. Everything is about other sports like soccer, but it’s the Olympics, everybody is looking at you and it’s good not only for you but for your sport too. So it’s good for BMX, but it’s also good for DH as well because people see that I am a mountain biker.
We were staying with Vanessa Quin (who won) that year at Les Gets, and there was a real upset once word spread about your injury, because at that time your dominance was so great. The competition was expecting you to win so much that they were planning on how to take the silver rather than the gold medal.
Yes, this is true; also for some of the French girls that had a chance to win, they were too disturbed by what had happened to me and what that meant for them. Probably that is the difference between the others and me. When I’m racing, when you take a start you can’t tell yourself you’re not going to win when there is always a possibility. Nobody is unbeatable, but when I was winning the other girls always thought it was not possible, so if you start and you think it’s not possible then for sure it’s a lot more difficult…
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Yes. When you start, you start to do your best, you accept the result at the end, but you don’t say to yourself what the result will be before it has happened. The way that I am, I don’t like it when people force me to do things. I was helped by a lot of people and my parents, but no one pushed me or forced me to do what I wanted. I need to try things out for myself and I choose the wrong thing and I need to learn by making mistakes for myself like that.
Why did you retire from racing in the end? Did you get burnt out on it?
No, not really, I wanted to do other things, I was still young. I’d been with Sunn for five years, and then been on a large USA team (Volvo Cannondale) when mountain bike was really big, and when you win everything you want to see something different. The deal I made with Commencal was to do All–Mountain, to ride things my way, do video shooting and to get coverage, but not to race. It was just too early in 2005. It’s only just started now with the Internet – that possibility for riders to get something good out of it, but the companies still don’t know what to do with your image and profile if you’re not racing World Cups or whatever, and back then it was too early, that’s for sure.
Did it feel strange in 2006 when it was the first round of the World Cups and you weren’t there racing after all those years?
That’s the crazy thing with me, I can really just say, ‘OK I don’t do this or that’ and I always just project onto what I’m doing and not on what I’ve done. And I stopped racing, so that was that. It was the same for BMX, I was World Champion, and I stopped racing to do mountain biking and I never got back on the BMX bike again until my preparation for the Olympic Games, and when I stopped racing downhill I didn’t have a have a DH bike at home, so I never rode one. I had an All–Mountain bike and that’s what I rode. I never even rode a DH bike again since 2005 until I rode a Sunn bike last year at Whistler.
Did you realise you’d missed it?
(Laughing) Yeah I did, I definitely missed riding a downhill bike a lot. It’s a different feeling, and I remembered you could go so much faster and ride the perfect line! In Enduro you never really know where you are going or exactly what is on the track because you can’t recognize it, so you make it up as you see it and really it’s a different spirit to DH where you can have the perfect run.
Do you think you might have even raced here at Champéry if the situation at Sunn hadn’t changed?
Well that was the project with Sunn. They were supposed to have a new bike, and I was going to make all the training camps with the Sunn team and get back on the French Cup, and then, why not, maybe the World Cup as well, but then it wasn’t happening. Sunn had some big financial problems, the bikes never got made and that was that.
What a shame!
Yeah it was…
So do you wish you were racing today?
When I look at the skies getting dark and it is raining, then no – I feel good sitting here (laughs), but it’s great to see it and watch.
How do you think you’d get on competing if you’d trained for this World Champs?
Nobody can tell. I don’t know, I don’t want to say and I can’t say because I’m not doing it. I’m not racing or riding.
You must think about it though? The strongest female racer this year has been Tracy Moseley – somebody who’s a similar age, and a rider you beat consistently earlier in your career. Obviously, it’s all “what ifs" but it must make you wonder how you’d get on?
What I’m sure about myself is that I’m stronger physically and I’m stronger mentally than when I stopped racing downhill. But still a race is a race and I’m not here doing it.
You’re still young, will we see you racing DH again?
Maybe yes I say once, why not? I’ve learned to never–say–never. That’s a choice I made to retire, and I do hope to have the opportunity to get back once more. I won’t race the whole circuit or the whole World Cup series because I think if I do well people will just look at the results and say OK, it’s easy, it’s always the same – she’s back the same as before, but they don’t see how much work it is to get to this level. How much risk you take to go fast, how many crashes you’ve got to take to be fast enough. It’s easy for people to say, “you can do it", but I know how much work it represents, how much pressure you have to take to do it well.
But you’re still training hard for all the other races you’re winning, and presumably that’s good training for DH too?
Well yes I know, I’m still training and I’m fit, and I know how to go fast, but I’m not sure how I’ll react when conditions are changing and it’s raining like today, before I was young I just go, that’s it. When I wake up in the morning I can tell you now that I’m getting older. So yes, if I feel it, I feel it and I’m sure I could go fast, but maybe if I crash or get hurt I’m not sure I’d have the same motivation as before.
There would also be a big weight on you if you came back. I think most people would think you are going to win, so that would only add to the intensity.
Exactly. There’s so much pressure on me, so much expectation. People say what you say; they still tell me I can do it. Yes, it would be great to come back, but if I don’t make it, or worse if I crash and really get hurt, then what would happen to me?
How much do you think it’s changed and who do you think would be your main competition if you came back?
It’s hard to tell. The bikes and the tracks have moved on – it’s part of an evolution. It’s good for the sport to have steep tracks, and tracks with a lot of variety. The technology now means the suspension, the brakes and the tyres are so much better than before, so we can ride harder stuff. It looks like the speeds are faster on TV to me as well. Some of the men, like Troy Brosnan and Danny Hart, they ride so light on the bike and so fast – it looks like they are flying over the rocks and roots, really going fast. I like to judge myself against the guys and beat as many as I can, because men are so competitive. If a woman beats you then your friends are going to give you a hard time and that feels good (laughs)! In the women, when I see Rachel Atherton on a bike, she is the girl with the best skill. This year, maybe she doesn’t win because she isn’t confident enough at the moment of what she is capable of, but she is definitely a good rider, and Rachel looks the most like a guy on a bike. Florianne Pugin will get faster, and Emmeline Ragot as well – she has really good skill when conditions are bad, or it’s technical and not too fast, and then Pom Pom (Myriam Nicole) too, but she is still young and more from a motocross background and she can be good on some tracks, but not everywhere yet. Tracy seems to be incredibly strong this year, and I’m happy for her with the success she’s having now after a long time trying for the Worlds.
All the engineers and mechanics always liked to work with me because, whilst I couldn’t take apart and fix my suspension, I had a really clear feeling and sensation for what was happening on the bike. Francois Gachet was the main one who did all the testing at first, and him and Nico are both guys, so they would always be more into that stuff than me! At Sunn we were doing everything – different spoke tensions, tyre pressures and compound testing, telemetry on the suspension and timing. We gained a lot of time like this with constant changes year after year. We had a basic set up from which to tweak at training camps, and for me it was most important to have a good balance on the bike front to rear. Nowadays everybody has close to the same level of performance, but back then some bikes were heavy, some bikes were really bad. Tyres were really important. You always wanted the tyres you couldn’t get, so sometimes when we renegotiated our team contracts it was better to not have more money, but to push a lot to have the tyres that we needed to win.
Of all the bikes you’ve ridden over the years do any favourites stand out for you? What was the best bike you ever rode?
For me it’s no question. It was the V–Process bike. I signed with Commencal, but they had no DH bike at the time, so I used the V–Process bike Nico and BOS developed. The suspension was so good on that bike, the wheels were sticking to the ground like crazy, and you couldn’t make a mistake and blame the bike when you were riding the V–Process. You steered it, and you stayed on the track. This bike couldn’t work correctly without an engineer though, they need to do a lot on the suspension, to open the shock and forks after each run, but when you had the back–up with you it was the best. I’m sure this bike would still be a good bike today if they changed the geometry a little bit.
So you’re now riding for Ibis, what’s your deal with them?
Well I signed for one year and that is ending up now, so I want to continue with Ibis, I really like the spirit of the company, and I really like the bike. They want me to do exactly what I want to do so hopefully we can keep on going together, so I don’t have to change all my bikes and my work, my job and life again!
But they don’t have a DH bike?
Well that’s not in the plan now…maybe I can get back on the World Cup once more, but I want a company to use my image, not my racing or my results to be the thing because I’m a rider now, but we’ll see. Never–say–never. I’ve learned you can’t predict the future.
You’ve had am amazing career so far, what’s next? Are you going to defend your Olympic BMX title?
No, because I got what I wanted and it was a really great experience. That gold medal was unexpected in the end, but the preparation you need to be at that level in BMX is really not in my spirit. l like training, but I like to have fun too. The pain, the gym work, doing sprints in a parking lot – this is not how I see my life. I need to be more free. All the races are in one place and in the city, but I like to be in the mountains.
What’s next for me is to do more publicity, use my image, keep riding fast, and beat as many of the guys as I can (laughs). In the past I didn’t show up enough to promote myself, but if I’d done it in a more public way I don’t think I’d have won as many titles. I need the quietness and that’s how I am, I can’t change that. Sure I could have been better known, but I am really happy with what I’m doing and everything I’ve done. All I want now is the opportunity to keep on and to be able to ride and I don’t need to be a superstar. I like my life and it’s good like that for me.